Positive Psychology and Climate Change

Today’s article is by my friend and fellow University of Pennsylvania MAPP graduate, David M. Carter.  David specializes in the psychology of behavior change towards more environmentally sustainable lifestyles.  I am inspired by the impact David makes on the world through his writing and speaking, promoting the theories and research discoveries in positive psychology that can foster behavioral change toward greater earth stewardship.  David teaches us how positive psychology and earth stewardship go hand in hand since human and planetary wellbeing are inextricably connected.  Enjoy . . .

Worldwide data are plentiful showing that happiness and well-being are connected to material wealth only up to a point.  Once basic needs are met, people do not report being significantly happier no matter how much money they have to spend.  This is an important  lever in the battle for the health of the Earth – if we can convince people that they will not be any happier even after achieving  great wealth, we could potentially put the brakes on rampant consumerism and the natural resource devastation it causes.  Sadly, since consumerism is the cash cow of the developed world, questioning its relevance to human well-being is often treated with disdain.

Comparing reported wellbeing with carbon footprint gives us an even clearer picture.  There is less of an association between well-being and carbon footprint than between well-being and income.  This provides deeper proof of the disconnection between high levels of consumption and human flourishing. 

Information like this gives me a deep feeling of hope.  If well-being and carbon footprint data were well correlated, then there would be good reason for despair.  It would mean that real sacrifice is required to alleviate climate change.  But the opposite appears to be true – we can significantly reduce our carbon footprint without jeopardizing our well-being.  In fact, we can increase our well-being by simplifying our lives, consuming less, connecting with the natural environment, and working together to overcome climate change issues. 

One of the goals of the founder of positive psychology, Martin E. P. Seligman, is to “increase the tonnage of happiness in the world”.  Further, Seligman is hopeful that we can increase the percentage of the world population considered to be flourishing from 16% today to 51% by 2051.  These are honorable goals.  The trouble is that, if we continue to emit carbon to the extent that we do today, by 2051 the world will be much less habitable.  For many species, some on whom we depend for survival, the world will be completely inhabitable.  Severe droughts will be commonplace.  Planetary water levels will be devastating communities.  And species extinctions will challenge our ability to grow food and combat disease.

If carbon emissions are not substantially reduced, over time it will become more and more difficult to increase human well-being through the applied power of positive psychology.  It will be one step forward and two steps back.  The fact of the matter is that the effectiveness of positive psychology to improve human flourishing will be undermined by the increasing negative impacts of climate change.  It makes little sense to continue to promote and practice effective positive interventions without taking into account the ways in which climate change impacts could be mitigated at the same time. 

This is a tremendous opportunity.  Frankly, it will require some rethinking about how we go about our work.  For example, to the extent that our work encourages higher levels of resource consumption, we are doing ourselves and humanity a big disservice.  We must recognize that flourishing is not synonymous with acquisitiveness.  Fortunately, the leading edge of positive psychology (e.g. positive health, mindfulness, social contagion) is revealing effective positive interventions that allow mutual human and environmental flourishing.

Positive psychology has everything to do with climate change.  We cannot achieve the levels of human flourishing that we desire without figuring out how to integrate the most hopeful and effective positive interventions with climate change reduction strategies, such as reduced levels of consumption, more localized economies, and rapid transition away from fossil fuel dependence.

The best and most inspiring news is that there are very strong direct links between living lightly on the planet and maximizing our ability to flourish.  This should not be surprising.  How can we expect to continue devastating the living system on which we all depend and expect to be able to thrive and flourish?  Of course, it is possible that the lucky few could thrive and flourish at the expense of the billions suffering from the devastating impacts of climate change.  As time goes by, and climate change exacerbates, the privileged become fewer and fewer and the devastated become more and more.

Perhaps most importantly, as our environment becomes unsustainable, positive psychology becomes unsustainable.  Climate change is indeed an “inconvenient truth”.  But the truth that climate change is having a strongly detrimental impact on our ability to flourish cannot be ignored.  We must find ways to thrive and flourish within the constraints of the living system on which we all depend – our mental and physical health is dependent on the health of our environment.  If we wish to achieve 51% flourishing by 2051, we can no longer ignore this fact.  It is time for every practitioner in positive psychology to work toward improving planetary health while, at the same time, working to achieve the highest levels of human flourishing for as many people as possible.

6 Responses to Positive Psychology and Climate Change

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar August 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm #

    How true, David. I’m with you. I agree with your argument, and sometimes am tempted to divert more of my time pleading for the same cause as well. My whole work is devoted to helping develop better sleep, food, mood and exercise habits. None of it is possible without a healthy environment – at least not fully.

    But I still haven’t figured out how, in a society that is totally driven by money – and let’s admit it, we treat money like it’s God in this country – how to have impact. People agree with the theory, but don’t want to be bothered with the practice. For example, they understand that changing cars less often means less production and that’s a good idea, but they care more about being seen as successful, and therefore upgrade to a new vehicle every 3 years.

    My parents live by the water. The lake is beautiful. It pains me to think that only 50 years ago, people could swim in that lake on hot summer days. Today, no one would, for fear of coming out with a 5th limb or something like that. Recently, I saw a documentary saying how the ocean is becoming more and more of a huge dumpster, full of plastic waste. I feel ill in my stomach thinking that, just like my mom used to be able to swim in that lake when she was a child and we can’t do so, possibly my own children won’t even get to swim in the ocean by the time they are adults.

    Just as alarming, the fish now eat all this plastic waste that is invading the ocean, thinking it’s food. And we eat that fish, so in the end we are not only intoxicating the marine life, but also ourselves. Seriously, that’s sick.

    But again, how can we truly make headway? And here I don’t mean convince isolated individuals to throw their water bottles in the recycling bin. That’s nowhere near enough anymore. I’m thinking about a real cultural shift. Just like Seligman convinced a good portion of the world to start paying attention to what works rather than what doesn’t – how do we make massive change happen?

    Jeremy – maybe that could be the #1 mission of your elevationism movement?


  2. David M. Carter August 13, 2011 at 4:36 pm #


    Thank you for expressing your support and concern for this important topic. Certainly, many (if not most) people avoid the topic of environmental degradation because it is painful and scary. As you know, when negative emotions are inspired, our “fight or flight” instincts take control of our attention and actions.

    The brutal fact, however, is that our social systems are imbedded in the larger ecological system. And, our economic systems are imbedded in our social systems. I like to think of the nested baskets metaphor to visualize this relationship. As you point out, our economic system, and its associated social norms, make it seem like we are trapped between either having a healthy economy or a healthy environment. Surprisingly (to me, at least), people often choose the economy over the environment, despite the fact that the nesting economy is deeply dependent on the health of the environment. Clearly, this is an unsustainable trajectory that needs to be changed.

    How do we change it, as you also point out, is the million dollar question. There are no easy and obvious answers. A good starting point in my mind is to develop greater awareness of the fact that the economic and social systems we have formed are simply human constructions – that they do not have legitimacy in the biophysical world. And, even though it seems like we are trapped by their terms and conditions, we can decide to change the fundamental functioning of these systems. As an example, consider the human-created concept of “private property”. Private property is not an absolute right in a biophysical sense. On the contrary, it generally works against the healthy functioning of complex ecosystems whose coordinated function do not recognize artificial boundaries.

    To broaden my awareness of these relationships, I have chosen to associate myself with those who know the most about the “laws” and functioning of the ecological systems on which we all depend for sustained flourishing; ecologists. I have learned a great deal about the incongruencies between biophysical reality and the economic and social systems that we have imposed upon it. As my knowledge expands, I become more hopeful, despite that fact that I have learned a lot about how the condition of the broader ecosystem is much worse than most people recognize. In a nutshell, by aligning our economic and social systems to the ecological system (much like indigenous peoples have done for centuries), we can correct the failed path that we have taken. Positive psychology can be a guide by showing that human well-being and earth well-being are inextricably tied together, and by giving us the resilience and courage to choose lifestyles that directly confront the unsustainable ways of living we have adopted.

  3. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) August 14, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

    David’s article expands the scope of positive psychology’s mission and reminds us of how hard it is to think about individual wellbeing without considering the environment. I love the comments because I think getting people to think and talk about these issues is an important step in making change. As David implies, the problems are systemic and whole-system solutions need to be considered. The downside of this is that many individuals recognize that they are a part of a broken system and feel powerless to change it. So most individuals do not take action because they feel that all they can do is wait and hope that the system will some day change.

    I think it is critical for people to realize that these “systems” are made up of individuals and society will only change when enough individuals change. The most important way to change the system is to be that change in your own sphere of influence.

    This means making sacrifices to do the right thing (not only when it is convenient) and voting with your pocket book to spend your money on businesses that are doing the right thing. Thanks for bringing these ideas to the forefront!

  4. DeeAnn Lensen September 15, 2011 at 1:27 am #

    This is fantastic! Even for those that are not used to thinking outside of their own ‘environment’, and see money as the ‘ultimate adult report card’, surely data like this will ignite conscienceless! We must pass this on…I did!

  5. blaaah January 25, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

    blaah blahh blaaahhhhhh


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